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Counting On Marla

Politicians and government officials learned the hard way how relentless this sweet-faced girl, barely out of her teens, could be.
 
 
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I knew Marla Ruzicka only a few short years, but that was all it took for her to leave an indelible impression on me.

Marla's self-assigned mission in life was to help innocent people who are caught in the crossfire of armed conflict. So, perhaps it was fitting, in the brutally impersonal way of the universe, that Marla herself became an innocent victim of war. On Saturday, April 16, Marla was killed in a car bomb attack as her vehicle traveled along the road to the Baghdad airport. She was 28 years old.

Marla Ruzicka was a paradox. In some respects, she was the quintessential California girl -- so pretty, blond and lively she could be mistaken for a cheerleader. But behind that luminous smile was a person of remarkable strength who possessed a purple heart of courage.

I first met Marla in 2001, shortly after she had returned from a trip to Afghanistan. Since she would be in the Bay Area only a short time, Marla had arranged a party with a two-pronged purpose: to see as many of her friends and colleagues as possible and to raise money for the aid work she was doing. People gathered at a restaurant in the Mission to share a meal and purchase textiles Marla had brought back from Afghanistan.

Eventually it was time for the money pitch; someone always has to give the money pitch, to encourage people to open up their wallets. But I had never heard a pitch like Marla's. She told us about the Afghan people she had met, not as an anonymous mass of victims, but as individuals with names and stories. She laughed at some memories; her eyes filled with tears at others. She talked about them as if they were members of her family, and in a sense they were. I still have the diaphanous black shawl I got that day.

Marla's close friend Tony Newman tells the story of how they met, more than a decade ago at the Global Exchange office in San Francisco, where he then worked. He noticed a girl of about 15 or 16 grabbing up all the newsletters and brochures she could carry. When the teenager had collected an armload, he couldn't ignore her any longer. "I went and asked, 'Are you being helped?' and she said, 'I'm from Lakeport, and I want to educate everyone in my school about what's going on in the world.'"

They spoke for a while. By the time Marla left, Tony had agreed to come to Lakeport to give a talk about his work. "I was totally impressed with her enthusiasm," he said. "I thought Lakeport was in Marin. I didn't know it was like four hours away."

Tony drove up to Lakeport and searched the unfamiliar town for the hall where he was to speak. "The first person I asked for directions on the street said, 'Are you here to give the Global Exchange talk?'" Marla, Tony says, had informed the entire town about his talk. Her dentist, her mailman, her basketball coach -- everyone she knew was there. "I was so impressed and blown away that this young girl was able to turn out 70 people in this small town," Tony said. "That's more people than you get in San Francisco!"

People who knew Marla say she gave off a sort of glow, as if she were lit from within. That was just her nature, but a true fire was ignited during her first visit to Afghanistan, as she told an interviewer:

On the road from Peshawar, Pakistan, to Jalalabad, crossing the border, I fell in love in 10 seconds. I fell in love with the light, the way the mountains blend with the earth, the colors; the whole place just put a spell on me. It was the sunlight; there was a magic driving down that road. Not too far inside the country, the reality of the past became apparent -- tanks were everywhere and I could see 23 years of devastation. My heart broke and I made a commitment to ensure that no more innocent Afghans had to suffer.

In the years to come, Marla would never waver from that commitment. Working with Global Exchange, she returned to Afghanistan several more times, and then in 2003, she founded her own organization, the Campaign for Innocent Victims of Conflict, or CIVIC.

What she wanted was very simple: civilian victims of U.S. military actions should be counted, she said, and compensated for their losses. Since the military did not keep count of civilian casualties, Marla commenced her own count. In Iraq she engaged volunteer survey teams to go door to door and gather data about the numbers of dead or wounded in each family. Finally, armed with information, Marla went to Washington DC. There she convinced Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy to sponsor legislation that would provide aid to civilians harmed in military operations.

A funny thing about Marla was that the steely purpose that drove her was not always immediately apparent. This worked to her advantage. Politicians and government officials learned the hard way how relentless this sweet-faced girl, barely out of her teens, could be. Marla possessed a quality once known as "pluck." To many of the bureaucrats she lobbied tirelessly on behalf of Afghan and Iraqi civilians, it translated to "pain in the ass."

While Marla was persistent about getting what she needed, she didn't believe in making enemies. Her guiding principle was love. She really was one of those rare, genuinely nice people. Even those who did not support her cause often ended up succumbing to her charm. In December 2003, Marla told the San Francisco Chronicle that the Marines had affectionately nicknamed her "Cluster Bomb Girl" because she was always nagging them to clear mined areas she had learned about.

I saw Marla again in 2003, at a fundraiser in Santa Monica at the home of film producer Robert Greenwald. She was wearing short shorts and the wrong shade of lipstick. She looked angelic and sort of goofy at the same time. She greeted me warmly and said she was tired, achingly tired, and I could see that underneath the bright lipstick and makeup, her face was pale. She had returned from Baghdad and was on her way to Washington; Marla was always on her way someplace. Still, she seemed happy. She was doing exactly what she wanted to do. As Tony Newman put it, "Marla always seemed to have this joyful energy, even though there was so much sadness and death around her."

It is difficult to believe that Marla is gone. So many people counted on her for so much, and she counted for so many people. For the Iraqis and Afghans who depended on her, to her family, friends and colleagues, to complete strangers who were inspired by her heroism -- yes, heroism is the right word -- Marla Ruzicka's death is among the unrecoverable losses of this war.

When Marla returned from that first pivotal visit to Afghanistan, a reporter asked her if she wanted to go back. She answered without hesitation, with her characteristic passion, "I want to go back every second. Yes, I will go back, or my heart will stop beating."

Marla Ruzicka's family asks that those who want to make a donation, make it out to CIVIC so they can keep Marla's work going in Iraq. Send checks to Clifford and Nancy Ruzicka, 3324 Lakeshore Blvd., Lakeport, CA 95453. You may also make a contribution online, on the CIVIC website.

Tai Moses is the editor of AlterNet.